Southeast Rivals Meet in Conference Semis

The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning may not be storied rivals with a long, bitter history. Give it two weeks.

The Lightning held the Southeast Division lead for several months in the regular season only to see the Caps storm back after the trade deadline and take the crown. The division was decided in large part by the Caps’ 4-1-1 head-to-head record against Tampa.

Now the two teams square off in the playoffs for the first time since 2003 in what promises to be an entertaining tilt, beginning Friday night in D.C.

Storylines to Watch:

Who Dominates Puck Possession?

The Lightning held the Penguins to three goals or less in each first round game and just four goals in the last three games, but the scoreboard only tells part of the story. They surrendered an average of 36.5 shots against (second worst) and averaged just 25.7 shots for (last). The Corsi ratings also seem to suggest the same thing – that the Lightning were dominated in puck possession during five-on-five play.

That looks great for 41-year old net minder Dwayne Roloson, but how sustainable is that model against the Caps? The Penguins were bereft of skill up front without their two superstars while the Caps boast an array of weapons up and down the top three lines.

Roloson posted two shutouts against the Caps earlier this season and has been a thorn in Washington’s side for years. But this is an entirely new test. If the Lightning allow the Caps to dictate play five-on-five the way Pittsburgh did, Roloson can’t simply be good – he’ll have to be exceptional.

Special Teams

The Lightning are here because of their spectacular performance on special teams, particularly the penalty kill which thwarted 34 of 35 Penguins attempts and also scored a short-handed goal. Their power play absolutely shredded the vaunted Pens’ PK as well, converting 29.6% of its opportunities for eight goals. Washington’s PK has been among the best all season and allowed just one Rangers power play goal in 20 attempts in the first round.

The Lightning need to draw penalties and keep converting their power plays into goals. The Capitals need to stop that from happening, especially early on. Otherwise, Boucher will drop his skaters into their 1-3-1 shell which can prove extremely difficult to score against.

A Battle of Attrition

They say nobody’s really 100 percent healthy at this time of year, so that’s out of the question. Instead, let’s ask “who’s a shell of his former self?” Steven Stamkos scored two goals in the first round, both in an 8-2 blowout. He has nine goals in 38 games since January. Does he look healthy to anyone? Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier look great, so no worries there.

The Caps are missing forward Mike Knuble with a hand injury and have been without the services of defenseman Dennis Wideman since the tail end of the regular season. Otherwise they’re as healthy as a second-round team gets and have been resting since last Saturday.

The Lightning are coming off brutal back-to-back games six and seven and will be playing their third playoff game in four nights Friday. How will they hold up?

The Caps’ speedy, big-bodied forwards will line up against a Lightning defensive corps that features lots of size and lacks speed. The top pair of Eric Brewer and Mattias Ohlund will presumably match up against Alex Ovechkin’s line, which ran the Rangers’ top pair of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal into the ground. Tampa will need its other blueliners such as Victor Hedman and Pavel Kubina to play like they didn’t just hit a brick hall.

End Game

As the Caps learned the hard way last year, anything can happen in the playoffs. Goalies can get hot, bounces can go one way or another, injuries can happen and momentum can defy any logical predictions. But there are certain things that teams are able to control on the ice which skew the odds of winning in one team’s favor.

The better team will usually dominate zone time and puck possession. The better team will typically win the special teams battle. The better team will often get more quality scoring chances.

And on paper, the team that seems most likely to do those things without needing the bounces to go its way is the Caps. They’re playing their best hockey of the year. Tampa is going to present a lot of challenges, but in the end they’ve benefited from special teams numbers that tend to be unsustainable over time.

Prediction: Caps in 6.

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